The legacy of Women’s Conference

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Only 37 years ago 900 women gathered on BYU’s campus to hear lectures on the home, church, careers and the community during a time of fervent women’s movements and national equal rights amendment efforts.

This first Women’s Conference in 1976 was geared toward BYU’s students and faculty, but it has since grown to a global conference that brings in women from all walks of life.

Women's Conference attendees from last year walk to their classes. (Photo by Chris Bunker)
Women’s Conference attendees from last year walk around the BYU campus between classes. (Photo by Chris Bunker)

Those in attendance at the first conference would have a hard time envisioning how this event has evolved. In 1990, the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints became a co-sponsor of BYU’s Women’s Conference, and the conference quickly grew to include thousands of Relief Society sisters from around the world.

Belle S. Spafford, who was a former Relief Society president during the first conference in 1976, predicted that the first Women’s Conference would someday become an annual meeting that would fill the newly-constructed Marriott Center, according to a 2009 Deseret News article. This would have seemed like a big stretch to the 900 original women who attended in the Wilkinson Student Center in 1976, and yet Spafford was not too far off. Last year’s Women’s Conference brought in close to 15,000 attendees, approaching capacity of BYU’s 20,000-seat Marriott Center.

This large annual crowd leaves a lasting impression on those in attendance, but women who come to this conference also leave uplifted and edified by Church leaders. Some notable speakers in the past have been Merill J. Bateman, Sheri Dew and BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson. Many members of the Quorum of the Twelve have also spoken at Women’s Conference, ranging from Elder Neal A. Maxwell and Elder David B. Haight to more recent apostles such as Elder Neil L. Andersen. In 2008, President Thomas S. Monson spoke at Women’s Conference.

For some, hearing from Church leaders on topics directed at LDS women has become a yearly tradition for family and friends, and yet for others this conference is also a chance to serve local communities with strangers from around the world. The 1999 Women’s Conference was the first to offer a program-wide mass service project as part of the schedule, and a legacy of service soon followed and became one of the greatest extended impacts of Women’s Conference.

As part of the two-day Women’s Conference program, participants are encouraged to join in on various service projects throughout campus. These service projects extend the positive influence of attendees far beyond the confines of the conference and benefit local communities.

Last year, according to the conference website, 23 service projects created 44,300 service items. That means, on average, every one of the 15,602 women created about three service items each. Those who participated in service projects donated around 22,400 service hours, which is about 2.5 years of nonstop service in the two days of the conference.

The items that were generated by these projects included 38,700 items for children in need, which ranged from 34,757 back-to-school backpacks to 340 pairs of mittens. There were also service projects that created around 5,600 items for struggling families, including 700 fleece scarves, 233 Christmas stockings, 862 fleece blankets and 100 quilts.

Women’s Conference has evolved in other ways as well. In 2003, a special track of sessions was incorporated into the schedule for Spanish speakers at Women’s Conference, or “La Conferencia de Mujeres.”

Women’s Conference has now become a part of BYU’s Division of Continuing Education, and sessions of the conference are often rebroadcast on BYUtv in more than a half-dozen languages.

This year’s conference will feature President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency, as well as notable BYU figures such as Elaine S. Marshal, former dean of the BYU College of Nursing, and BYU advancement vice president Kevin J. Worthen.

For more information about this year’s Women’s Conference, visit the website.

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